Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/August 1891/Hypocrisy as a Social Debaser


By Dr. R. W. CONANT.

IT is difficult to decide whether the author of Hypocrisy as a Social Elevator is to be taken seriously. That a thoughtful and conscientious man who knows the meaning of hypocrisy could seriously advocate a doctrine so Machiavellian is the worst horn of a dilemma, and it seems more likely that he is simply trying to "raise a breeze." Indeed, this would be rather implied by his final statement, that he "calmly awaits the vehement chorus of dissent from this proposition."

Hypocrisy is, indeed, an indisputable fact, ancient as Adam and Cain and world-wide; but any claim that this detestable tendency of human nature is a social elevator requires a reply, if only because some persons rather weak on their moral and intellectual pins, particularly among the young, might take these sophistries seriously, to their own great loss and detriment.

In the first place, our advocate of hypocrisy seems unaware of the meaning of the word. It is from the Greek, "to question and answer," as actors on the stage; hence, to play a part, and especially to pretend to be better than one is in virtue or religion. What has this in common with the abstinence which Hamlet recommends to his mother in the extract which Mr. McElroy quotes? Nothing. Abstinence tends toward virtue, hypocrisy toward vice. But this is a minor matter, since Hamlet is scarcely a safe social guide.

A like confusion of ideas arises when he quotes these words, which he appears to fancy contain an element of hypocrisy:

". . . rise to higher things,
With their dead selves as stepping-stones."

Tennyson's arrangement is better, but that is an error in taste. It is a more serious error to confound hypocrisy with the grandest attribute of man, the power to set his feet on his dead sins and rise toward the Throne. Not so hypocrisy. It hugs its sin in secret and sneaks toward hell. Better any day the bold sinner than the hypocrite.

Congratulations are in order for the Pharisees. They have at last found an apologist, perhaps an admirer; rather late, to be sure, but better late than never. It seems that "they were powerful promoters of the ethical development of the Jews," etc. There must be a big mistake somewhere, for it was said of them by one who surely had better opportunities for observing and knowing the Pharisees than Mr. McElroy, "O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayer; therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation." Rather a harsh way to address "powerful promoters of ethical development"!

But the excellence of the Pharisees is hardly a subject for serious consideration, and we hasten on to those portions of the argument which have some plausibility, viz., the cases of patriotism, women, and religion. The key-note of this hymn to hypocrisy is struck in the remark on the second page, "No man is worse by simulating goodness." This may sound finely epigrammatic, but unfortunately there is not a word of truth in it. Any one is always worse by simulating goodness, for that means assuming the appearance of it without the reality. Not only is he no more virtuous than before, but his vice has acquired an additional sneaking quality, which makes the man more contemptible per se, and infinitely more dangerous to the community. Imitation is the tribute which vice pays to virtue, doubtless, but the vice is none the less vicious.

In the case of patriotism it is doubtless true that exaggerated statements of the virtues and greatness of the past do little harm and often good, but it is rather far-fetched to endeavor to class such exaggerations as hypocrisy. The hypocrite is not anxious to exalt others, but himself; even if, in exalting himself, he pulls down others. But, waiving this confusion of terms, does any one suppose that myth is more elevating to a people than sober historical fact? If it were true, we had better find some way of suppressing future Grotes, Bancrofts, and Motleys.

As to the elevation of women, it might seem at first blush that Mr. McElroy was hardly serious in his theory that the young woman who asked her mother if she should "wash for a high-neck or low-neck dress" might in time, by the practice of such hypocrisy, rise to the virtue of a full-length bath! But seriously, is there any one who can regard such dirty hypocrisy as "a social elevator"? "He that is filthy let him be filthy still."

"Nothing aided the elevation of women so much as the arrant hypocrisy which took the form of mediæval gallantry.… At first hollow and specious to the last degree—thinly varnishing a bestiality so low that it was scarcely above that of a bull seal," etc. Here our apologist makes a point worthy of consideration. It can not be denied that gallantry, even exaggerated and underlaid by bestiality, is far better than boorishness; but to say that it is a social elevator involves a fallacy, very prevalent, to be sure, but none the less a fallacy—viz., the idea that fine manners make fine people. It is generally supposed, and sometimes preached, that manners, culture, education, music, what not, elevate society. Here lies the essential fallacy of this whole article and of all similar screeds—a confounding of post hoc with propter hoc; a putting of the cart before the horse. What is it to "elevate society"? To impart expertness in playing the piano, in making bright repartees, giving and attending dinners elegantly, dancing gracefully, or even being conversant with the latest poetry and science? These are not the elevators of society, but its ornaments. The flower can not elevate the stalk. Society is elevated just so far as it lifts its face toward Mount Sinai, and no more. The ten commandments are worth more as "elevators" than all the patent contrivances which the unregenerate mind of man can conceive.

Page after page of history gives the lie to such a theory. When were manners most elegant, wit most polished, culture most a fine art? In the palaces of Italy in the middle ages, in the courts of Louis the Grand and Foolish, in the halls of Henry and Charles; and where and when was society most rotten! No. it is a great mistake to suppose that fine manners per se elevate either men or women; nor have they any moral value except so far as they are the outgrowth and sign of a true respect and consideration, the ornaments of a society which loves truth and purity and justice.

But Mr. McElroy is particularly unhappy in choosing religious hypocrisy as an illustration of his theory. Nowhere have the effects of this most despicable trait of human nature been more evident and harmful; it has ever been the dry-rot of religion, eating out all that was best and sweetest. He appears to be quite favorably impressed with the way "the pagans were chased into the bosom of the Church with blade and brand." Surely he has read Lecky's History of European Morals, and knows that this same Church, so zealous for the conversion of pagans, had plenty of austere dignitaries whose children ran up into the hundreds, until like Joseph's corn they left off numbering. Verily, she was a precious hypocrite, with her indulgences in one hand and her dripping sword and fagot in the other, but hardly a happy example of a "social elevator." It has been generally admitted, at least by Protestants, that the moral and religious pall which overhung Europe during the dark ages was due to nothing so much as to the foul vapors given forth from that pit of corruption and hypocrisy which is now offered us as a "social elevator."

But perhaps our friend has a squint toward Rome, and may take exception to this scoring of the rnedieeval Church. Unfortunately, however, the same criticism holds of the Protestant Church of to-day, though of course to a far less degree. Hypocrisy is the cancer of every prosperous religion, and is to-day eating out its heart. The so-called orthodox Church is losing its hold on the masses, and why? Because it pretends to believe what it does not believe; because it persists in averting its face toward the twilight dimness of the past, instead of looking onward and upward toward the morning light.

But what is true of religion is universally true, that hypocrisy is a curse. It is one of the foul blots on all progress, and there is no health in it. The fact that it accompanies progress makes it no more a social elevator than misery and sin, which also flourish under progress. To every soul is presented this choice: "Here, O soul, is thy mask of flesh; behind it thou mayst work what thou wilt without fear of detection; behind it thou mayst think pure thoughts and noble aspirations, or thou mayst wallow in filth and plot murder and theft, and none suspect thee if only thou be an expert hypocrite." What a sensation there would be if by a fiat of Omnipotence this earth-mask might be stripped off now, in this year of grace 1891, and each trembling soul be exposed naked to the light, even as it shall in that great day! What a hunting of holes and hiding of heads—some carried so very high! What an exposé of dark closets and skeletons, and almost forgotten cesspools and underground ways; and what a dividing of sheep from goats when all the masks of hypocrisy were torn away! No more secret eating of sweet, stolen fruit; no more safe and secret hatings and backbitings and plottings; for wrong-doing and evil-speaking would rebound with the terrific force of a boomerang. Society would necessarily divide at once into two general classes: on the one hand the decent, the industrious, and the patriotic, those who had not seared their souls with sin, and who preferred good to evil; on the other, those who were unable to abandon their evil ways even under the penalty of publicity, and who would be left to herd by themselves and prey upon one another. Thus would heaven and hell be set up already on the earth. For the world is what man makes it.

And herein is seen the solution of that great mystery of the union of soul and body, apparently so incongruous, so hurtful. In no other way could the soul be forced to make choice between good and evil, and at the same time be left free and independent in its choice behind an impenetrable mask—two essentials for the formation of character. What shall be the shame and anguish of that soul which has abused this great opportunity, which has chosen to debase itself, in that great day when hypocrisy shall naught avail, when we shall see as we are seen and know as we are known! Now, wheat and tares grow together, and tares imagine themselves as good as wheat; for falleth not the rain on the just and on the unjust? But in the great winnowing-day tares shall learn that they are tares and trash. The remorse of the inebriate or opium fiend is the punishment of him who has wrecked his body merely; what shall be the remorse of him who discovers too late that he has wrecked his soul, and forever! That will be eternal punishment.